William Paterson and the New Jersey Plan

From the Lecture Series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

William Paterson feared the ease with which a large state’s delegates could bully and shove their way to dominance in any new-modeled Congress. That was precisely what he saw happening in the Randolph Plan, and so he prepared his attack on the Randolph Plan with great care. What was his plan?

A painting depicting the Assembly Room as it appeared in the revolutionary era.
The Constitutional Convention saw long discussions and different plans being proposed by members. (Image: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston/Public domain)

The day following the report of the Committee of the Whole on the Randolph Plan, Paterson finished what he regarded as a purely federal alternative plan, which he said several of the deputations wished to be substituted in place of that proposed by Mr. Randolph.

Paterson had been circulating his proposal among the other small-state delegations, cementing alliances and lining up individuals to speak to any objections from the Madison-Randolph quarter.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Dickinson’s Observations

John Dickinson remarked to James Madison that the Virginians had wanted too much, too fast, in creating a single, powerful national government. Dickinson also suggested that though the smaller states might agree to a bicameral legislature, they would insist on equal suffrage in both houses: one state, one vote.

Of course, to Madison, this was no improvement whatsoever on the Articles of Confederation. Small states would continue to carry an outsize weight in any new Congress, and the results would always be the same: paralysis at the national level, reckless abandon at the state level.

Paterson’s Revenue Plan

But equal representation of states in the new government was a fetish for the small states. This became apparent as Paterson took the floor at the beginning of the session on June 15, 1787. He had nine resolutions to submit, which would make up what would be called the New Jersey Plan.

First, Paterson allowed that “the articles of Confederation ought to be so revised, corrected and enlarged, as to render the federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government, and the preservation of the Union.” He was willing to concede a bicameral National Legislature, although what he wanted really was a single unicameral National Congress.

Then he added that this “Congress should be authorized to pass acts for raising a revenue, by levying a duty or duties on all goods or merchandizes of foreign growth or manufacture, imported into any part of the United States.”

Learn more about Paterson’s dissent.

Judging Rules

Patterson continued: “And the Congress should be able to pass acts for the regulation of trade and commerce, as well with foreign nations as with each other, provided”—and here was the sting—”that all punishments, fines, forfeitures and penalties to be incurred for contravening such acts, rules, and regulations shall be adjudged by the Common law Judiciaries of the State in which any offence shall have been committed or perpetrated.”

That, as Madison and Paterson both well knew, meant the delivery of a veto power over the operation of trade and commerce to state courts. Under the veneer of reasonableness, Paterson was already ensuring more of the status quo.

Paterson’s Taxation Proposal

Paterson next turned to the kind of taxation which would be necessary to support a new national government.

Instead of the rule for making requisitions mentioned in the articles of Confederation, Congress should levy taxes on the states in proportion to the whole number of White and other free citizens and inhabitants of every age, sex, and condition, including those bound to servitude for a term of years and three-fifths of all other persons not comprehended in the foregoing description.

Here was a scheme for proportionate representation except that it was more about taxation. Large states, like Virginia, with 750,000 people, would pay more of the share of the national budget than small states like New Jersey, with 180,000 people. In fact, it would have to pay more than three times as much. But it would not get more than the same single vote in Congress that New Jersey enjoyed in determining how or when or where that money should be spent.

Exclusion from Military Service

Congress Convention in session.
The deliberations at the Convention were divided, with Paterson speaking for the small states. (Image: John Trumbull/Public domain)

Paterson conceded that it would be a good idea to elect a federal executive with what he called “general authority to execute the federal acts, to appoint all federal officers not otherwise provided for, and to direct all military operations.” But what Paterson seemed to yield with one hand in the Virginians’ direction, he promptly took back with the other.

He left unstated whether this executive should be one person or a committee, and he wanted it clear that “none of the persons composing the federal executive shall, on any occasion, take command of any troops, so as personally to conduct any enterprise, as general, or in any other capacity.”

Power to State Executives

This may have been a wagged finger in the direction of George Washington, or at least an effort to prevent Randolph and Madison from suggesting that Washington would be the ideal man to lead the Federal government.

But even more than keeping military authority out of the hands of the executive, Paterson also wanted this executive to be removable by Congress on application by a majority of the executives of the several states. Whoever—or whatever—the executive was, it would remain firmly subordinate not just to Congress but to the states.

Learn more about Edmund Randolph’s plan.

Federal Judiciary Without Power

Paterson was willing to see a federal judiciary established to consist of a supreme tribunal, the judges of which would be appointed by the executive. But its powers would be severely limited to strictly federal matters. It “shall have authority,” Paterson said, “on all impeachments of federal officers, in all cases touching the rights of ambassadors, in all cases of piracies and felonies on the high seas” or over “the collection of the federal revenue.” But nothing was said about the federal judiciary having any restraining power on the actions of the states.

So Paterson’s New Jersey Plan created the semblance of a new national government, but it hardly granted any new powers, and certainly none which might seriously threaten the free hand of each state to do what it wanted.

Common Questions about William Paterson and the New Jersey Plan

Q: What did Paterson’s plan for taxation mean for the larger states?

Paterson’s plan of proportionate taxation was that states would pay more tax if their population was greater. This meant that bigger states would end up paying more tax but would have the same single vote in Congress as the small states had.

Q: What was Paterson’s suggestion about who could serve on the federal executive?

In Paterson’s plan, though the federal executive was to be responsible for, among other things, military defense, no person on the executive should be personally conducting in military operations, thus excluding George Washington.

Q: According to Patterson, who could remove the federal executive?

Paterson wanted the federal executive to be removable by Congress on application by a majority of the executives of the several states. Whoever—or whatever—the executive was, it would remain firmly subordinate not just to Congress but to the states.

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